In the past century, the face of the American church has changed — not the church’s theology as much as the church’s expression.
Healthy churches have worked hard to be doctrinally sound and culturally astute. In other words, to reach people for the gospel, you must first know where the people are. You can’t lead a person from Point A (where they are) to Point B (a life transformed in Christ) if you don’t know where Point A is in the first place.
As far back as the Great Awakening, healthy churches have taken time to know the people they were reaching and adjusted accordingly.
Although the church’s face has changed over the past 150 years or so, a prevailing assumption has remained consistent. During that time, leaders have always assumed undervaluing the gospel was the reason people didn’t seek Christ. People were not against Jesus; they just allowed worldly values to out-prioritize him.
Therefore, while evangelism took different shapes and forms, the goal was the same: to get someone to make Jesus his or her top priority.
Methods like, “When you die, are you going to heaven or hell?” presume that people believe in heaven and need help getting their priorities in order. Similarly, when the modern church entered the scene, it often focused on being contemporary, laid back and relevant. It delivered sermons on life application and offered cool worship in hopes the visiting nonbeliever would say, “This was fun, my kids love it and I learned something today. That can’t be bad, right?”
Take a look at the New Testament. You’ll see just how much the church can thrive in a world that started off seeing no value in Christ.
People want to make a difference in the world, so churches became missional in the hopes people would say, “Well, I guess changing the world through my local church is as good a way as any.”
All that has changed.
The problem is, for the first time in 150 years, the prevailing assumption has changed. Nonbelievers have shifted from thinking the church, or even Christ, is a low priority to saying, “This religion may not even be healthy for me, much less for my children!”
Understand, I am not saying this is fair. I am just helping us see that Point A has radically shifted. If we are going to lead people to Christ (Point B), we must better understand the new Point A.
Failure to understand the new Point A not only affects how we approach evangelism but the very fabric of local church programing. For example, when my children were young, I didn’t care how relevant and applicable the places of worship of the Muslim, Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness were; I did not (and still don’t) believe they were healthy for my children or me.
For many nonbelievers today, Christianity has entered into that same category — considered unhealthy.
How did this happen? Constant unfavorable news reports? Pervasive scandals in the church? Multiple family generations now removed from the church (even my grandma didn’t go to church)? Worldly values growing further from Christian values? Pluralism? Hypocrisy? Politics? People no longer convinced that the church has the answer during bad times?
While the old paradigm focused more on “come and see,” I think the new standard is “Go and be.”
Your guess is as good as mine. But instead of trying to analyze how this change came about, let’s recognize there is a new Point A and focus on how to reach those who see no value in Christ.
Patience, patience, patience
I consider evangelism one of my spiritual gifts. But I have had relationships that took over three years before I saw somewhat of a breakthrough.
If someone with whom you have a relationship assumes Christianity is not in his or her best interest, understand the difficulty of their journey to Christ. It is often traveled along a lengthy path full of twists and turns. Of course, the Holy Spirit could change that in an instant, but he usually patiently waits for the person to take the long path.
Authenticity, for real!
Authenticity has become such a buzzword that most churches write it into their core values. Yet at the same time, there seems to be a weird, enormous inner pressure for Christians to present themselves as having it all together. I say “weird” because I can’t find that command anywhere in the Bible.
Nonbelievers smell a lack of authenticity a mile away and stop taking your “religion” seriously when they see it is not real. It is fine to show people your brokenness and pain, but share with them what Christ is teaching you during those seasons.
Have a 30-day story
Show me a Christian who doesn’t have at least one story in the past month of what God has done in his or her life, and I will show you someone who is not an effective witness. We can’t give away what we don’t have. Regularly reflect on how God has shown up in your life so that you can share about it at an appropriate time.
Know your “Yay, God!” stories
Take time to reflect on the highs and lows of your life and how God has ministered to you. You may have a dozen stories of God doing something powerful in your life — or even carrying you during your low times. When your friend goes through something similar, you will have something to share. Don’t force the stories on people, but be ready to have a timely word for your friend at a suitable time.
Join their world before inviting them into yours
While the old paradigm focused more on “come and see,” I think the new standard is “go and be.” My wife and I hang out at places that are way out of our comfort zone. We hear and see things that don’t fit our values. Yet we do so to be the presence of Christ. We don’t compromise ourselves, but we also don’t worry about appearances. It’s time for Christ-followers to break out of the Christian bubble.
Start with common ground
Traditional evangelism starts with a negative: “You are in a bad place, so come to the good place.” That might work if the person needs to reorganize his or her value system. But, if that person doesn’t believe in the same value system as you, negativity will only drive you apart. Instead, find common ground.
She’s an environmentalist? Very cool; God started that movement in the Garden of Eden. He is more liberal than you? Do you know who invented grace?
See my point? Start where they are.
Church programing needs to ask a different set of questions
Much of our church programing focuses on the idea of, “Come join us; you will like us!” Perhaps the church needs to focus less on programing and more on helping its leaders model Christ’s presence.
The church needs to make a more significant effort to teach its leaders how to be the presence of Christ in the world. If the leadership were to model Christ’s presence and stop burning themselves out with all the latest and greatest programs, church attenders would soon do the same.
The world has been changing for as long as it has existed. What’s new is that we are in a new paradigm shift of our culture’s assumptions. Ironically, our “new world” is more like the one Jesus and Paul encountered.
We are no longer the dominant culture. But, take a look at the New Testament. You’ll see just how much the church can thrive in a world that started off seeing no value in Christ.
Dr. Bruce Hopler, Executive Director of Church Strengthening
Dr. Bruce Hopler has been coaching pastors and church planters for over 20 years. He now serves as the executive director of Church Strengthening at Converge. Bruce started a church in Maryland against all odds with no core group and no upfront funding, but it has grown for 18 years. He then moved to Las Vegas, where he was the Spiritual Formation pastor for the eighth-fastest growing church in America. During his time in Vegas Bruce completed his doctorate in spiritual formation and leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. After four years there, he moved to Orlando to join Converge. Bruce loves planters and pastors. He has been certified in StratOps, Church Unique and SOULeader coaching. He strives to help pastors discover what healthy means, within their unique calling and context.